What Is Esophageal Cancer?
The esophagus is a muscular tube that’s responsible for
moving food from the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer can occur when a
malignant tumor forms in the lining of the esophagus. As the tumor grows, it
can affect the deep tissues and muscle of the esophagus. A tumor can appear
anywhere along the length of the esophagus, including the junction of the
esophagus and stomach, or where the two meet.
What Are the Common Types of Esophageal Cancer?
There are two common types of esophageal cancer.
carcinoma occurs when cancer starts in the flat, thin cells that
make up the lining of the esophagus. This form most often appears in the top or
middle of the esophagus, but it can appear anywhere.
when cancer starts in the glandular cells of the esophagus that are responsible
for the production of fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas are most common in
the lower portion of the esophagus.
What Are the Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer?
During the early stages of esophageal cancer, you probably
won’t experience any symptoms. As your cancer progresses, you may experience:
- unintentional weight loss
- difficulty or painful swallowing
- frequent choking while eating
- food coming back up the esophagus
- chest pain
What Causes Esophageal Cancer?
As with most cancers, the cause of esophageal cancer isn’t
yet known. It’s believed to be related to abnormalities, or mutations, in the
DNA of the cells related to the esophagus. These mutations signal the cells to multiply
more rapidly than normal cells. These mutations also disrupt the signal for
these cells to die when they should. This causes them to accumulate and become
Who Is at Risk for Developing Esophageal Cancer?
Experts believe that the irritation of esophagus cells contributes
to the development of cancer. Some habits and conditions that can cause
- consuming alcohol
- having a reflux disorder, such as
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- being overweight
- not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- having Barrett’s esophagus, which is a condition
characterized by damaged esophageal lining due to GERD
People at increased risk of esophageal cancer include the
- Men are three
times as likely to develop esophageal cancer as women.
- Esophageal cancer is more common in African-Americans
than in other races.
- Your chances of developing esophageal cancer increase
with age. If you’re over the age of 45, your risk may be higher.
Diagnosing Esophageal Cancer
Testing methods for diagnosing esophageal cancer can include
- An endoscopy involves the use of an instrument
with a camera attached to a tube that goes down your throat and allows your
doctor to view the lining of your esophagus to check for abnormalities and
- A barium swallow is an X-ray imaging test that allows your doctor to see the lining
of your esophagus. To do this, you’ll swallow a chemical called barium while
the images are being obtained.
- A biopsy is a process in which your doctor
removes a sample of the suspicious tissue with the help of an endoscope and
sends it to a lab for testing.
Treating Esophageal Cancer
Your doctor may recommend surgery if the cancer hasn’t
spread to other parts of your body. Your doctor may instead recommend chemotherapy
or radiation therapy as the best course of action. These treatments are also
sometimes done to shrink tumors in the esophagus so that they can be removed
more easily with surgery.
If the cancer hasn’t grown past the superficial layers of
the esophagus, your doctor can remove the tumor using an endoscope. In more
serious cases, a portion of the esophagus and sometimes the lymph nodes around
it are removed. The tube is reconstructed with tissue from the stomach or large
intestine. In severe cases, a portion of the top of the stomach may be removed
The risks of surgery can include bleeding, leaking in the
area where the rebuilt esophagus was attached to the stomach, and infection.
Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to attack cancer
cells. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery. It sometimes
accompanies the use of radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy does have several side effects. Most are
related to the fact that the drugs used also kill healthy cells. Your side
effects will vary depending on the drugs your doctor uses. These side effects can
- hair loss
Radiation therapy uses beams of radiation to kill cancer
cells. Radiation may be administered externally with the use of a machine or
internally with a device placed near the tumor, which is called brachytherapy.
Radiation is commonly used along with chemotherapy and side effects are usually
more severe when combined treatment is used. The side effects of radiation can
- skin that looks sunburned
- pain or difficulty when swallowing
- painful ulcers in the lining of the esophagus
It’s possible to experience some side effects of treatment
long after treatment finishes. These can include esophageal stricture, where
the tissue becomes less flexible and can cause the esophagus to narrow, making
it painful or difficult to swallow.
If your esophagus is obstructed as a result of cancer, your
doctor may be able to implant a stent, or tube made of metal, into your
esophagus to keep it open.
They may also be able to use photodynamic therapy, which
involves injecting the tumor with a photosensitive drug that attacks the tumor
when exposed to light.
Your chances for recovery improve the earlier the cancer is
found. Esophageal cancer is usually found in the later stages when it can only
be treated but not cured. Your chances of survival may improve with surgery if
the cancer hasn’t spread outside of your esophagus.
Preventing Esophageal Cancer
Although there’s no sure way to prevent esophageal cancer,
there are a few steps you can take to lower your risk. Avoiding cigarettes and
chewing tobacco is key. Limiting your consumption of alcohol is also thought to
lower your risk. Eating a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and
maintaining a healthy weight may also be effective ways to avoid esophageal